Friday, February 24, 2012

Genocide, justice and the Maya calendar

As I was preparing to leave Guatemala, events were brewing in the realm of justice. General Efraín Rios Montt, the president who seized power in a military coup in 1982, had been hiding from justice in plain view. It was during Rios Montt's brief time in office (about 18 months, I think) that the worst and bloodiest of the massacres took place.  The Peace Accords granted immunity from prosecution to elected office holders, so Rios Montt was elected to Congress and remained there until January 14 of this year, when his last term expired. Now in his 80s, he stepped down from Congress and was immediately slapped with papers charging him with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. This has been widely reported in the international and Guatemalan press, so I won't repeat those stories (you can easily find them by searching online). The cases seem to be proceeding. I can't say that my friends and comrades are happy; nothing will bring back those who were slaughtered, and he has not been convicted yet of anything. So far there was simply a preliminary hearing in late January -- and there was a large presence of victims' families, survivors and other human rights activists in front of the court, to bear witness. I wished fervently that I could have gotten on a plane and flown back to Guatemala for that day, to watch the General walk into the courthouse -- this was precisely a week after my return, I think. But people in the community in New Bedford have been watching the case closely, especially those like Adrian who were directly affected themselves (he was tortured, so were his parents and siblings, and several other relatives perished in one of the massacres).

Earlier this week, the court ruled that Rios Montt had to remain under house arrest while awaiting trial; I am not certain when the next court appearance is scheduled.  The wounds of the war are present, just below the surface, in so many places.

At the same time we have the spectacle of the newly installed president cloaking himself in the mantle of multiculturalism in his efforts to cast himself as the great promoter of respect for Maya culture. This past week was a sacred moment in the Maya calendar. February 22 was the culmination of the Wayeb' -- the five day period that  marks the end of one solar year and the start of the next one (there is more than one calendar that the Maya use; there is a sacred calendar that counts ritual dates, and a solar calendar, which guides the planting and harvesting of crops, as well as the long count calendar -- the latter is the one that is ending in December of 2012). President Pérez Molina (the words stick in my craw; usually when we are discussing him among friends in New Bedford, we refer to him as "el genocidio" -- the one who committed genocide -- rather than by name) was photographed attending a ceremony to mark the beginning of the Oxlajuj Noj, which is the start of the new solar calendar, flanked by Maya priests and other dignitaries. The images were kind of galling.  Here a man who presided over the slaughter of thousands of Maya in the Ixil region is now presiding over the country, and portraying himself as a great defender of Maya culture. Here's one of the articles along with a video clip of Pérez Molina placing flowers on the altar at Iximche.
Prensa LIbre article with video

Many Maya communities are, of course, outraged -- although perhaps not the priests who carried out the ceremony that the president attended... but then again, maybe they didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. He is, after all, the elected head of state, and perhaps it would not have been possible to have denied him attendance. I don't know enough about the mechanics and politics of this; but there have always been those who collaborated, not always completely willingly, with authorities.  An equivalent would be to have a Nazi attending a ceremony at Auschwitz, I think, or to have General William Custer as an honored guest at a Ghost Dance.

Maya priests and activists have been busy putting out their pronouncements on the upcoming events, trying to correct some misconceptions, and also critiquing the commercialization, profanation and touristification of the "change of cycle" in December 2012. The Counsel of the Maya Peoples of the West (Consejo de los Pueblos Mayas del Occidente), based in Xela, has issued some statements, and took the opportunity to criticize the government for its hypocrisy -- playing up its support of Maya culture while at the same time granting more concessions to mining companies that are destroyed the ecosystems and livelihoods in Maya communities.  Here is a link to their blog:
CPO blog

For the curious, I have, by the way, been invited by friends who are Maya priests, to come back to Guatemala to accompany them in December, and I will probably go.  I had some doubts, but one of my buddies from Xela argued that I should have no hesitation because the ceremonies to which I had been invited were private, not public, and it was an honor to have been invited and I should show respect by accepting. Additionally, I think the tourist-oriented events will be worthy of ethnographic study.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Meanwhile, back in Guatemala

Back in Guatemala things do not look so good. The new government has made statements and taken actions that have upset and offended Maya communities -- for example, removing the four-colored flag (representing the four colors of people, the four sacred directions, the four cardinal points) from the presidential palace.

The president sparked some interested with a pronouncement that drugs should be legalized. This drew criticism from the U.S. and mixed reactions from other governments in the region. It's interesting that he proposed this, and in the U.S. I support decriminalization since so much of drug enforcement targets low-level sellers, and doesn't do much about high-level criminals. However, in Guatemala, many if not most of the criminals who run the drug trade are tied to the military, and thus to the current government. There are not a lot of street sales there (in contrast to the states or other countries where there is a fair amount of drug consumption; this is not to say that no one in Guatemala uses cocaine or heroin but most of the drugs are for the export market).  So there is not a lot of police activity going into this kind of enforcement. So decriminalizing might just result in making things easier for the higher-ups who control the production and transshipment of drugs. However, it will be very interesting to see how this debate plays out.

The political campaign focused on security, but all the candidates made pledges to retain social programs, although the new president loudly criticized the management of social programs, such as the Bolsa Solidaria (solidarity bag, a program that gave people food; not food coupons, but food) and Mi Familia Progresa, a program that gave cash payments to women with children in extremely poor families.  Not necessarily female headed households, but the payments went to mothers (regardless of marital status, I think). The needs are still there, and perhaps have increased: a recent article in the national press noted that 80% of families were in need of food assistance.

And then the statistics on violence against women and femicide continue to be alarming. The current estimate is that 650 women a year on average are killed in what are considered femicide cases (usually characterized by torture and gruesome methods of killing).

2012 marks the end of a long cycle in the Maya calendar, as everyone probably knows -- the end of a 5,125 year cycle and the start of a new one. Maya refer to this as the Oxlajuj Baqtun (the 13th baqtun -- a baqtun is a unit of time equivalent to 144,000 days).  There has been a lot of hype about this and a lot of incorrect information (this is the end of the world, etc.). Bur a more serious matter has to do with who is going to benefit from what will undoubtedly be increased tourism to the "mundo maya" (the Maya world).  In general, Maya communities benefit very little from tourism, and the major tour operators and hotels in the areas that are most visited by tourists are not owned by Maya. The government has announced that it is going to sponsor activities, concerts, who knows what else, leading up to and on the 21st of December (which is more or less when the calendar cycle ends and the new one begins). Tour operators are projecting a dramatic increase in tourism, and I imagine that places like Tikal will be jammed full of foreign visitors. Maya organizations have been discussing how to counteract what they see as the commercialization of what is a very sacred and special time, and I will, as time goes on, share some of the material I have been sent.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The long goodbye

This was drafted in retrospect, from the cold (literally) comfort of my office in Brooklyn, as I looked back on the warmth -- human and otherwise -- of Guatemala.  I am in Massachusetts right now, as I finally publish it, but such are the contours of my life, both here and in Guatemala (at least there we have some continuity: never in one place for too long. I was going to say, "never firmly in one place" but even though my life involves a lot of physical travel, I do consider the bonds and friendships and engagements to be very solid).

There were various despedidas throughout the last week and a half, and it was all very sweet, for the most part. I would say "bittersweet," but actually less sadness than I had expected. It was an intense and wonderful year -- yes, even considering the robberies (car and cameras) and other unpleasantnesses, and some serious frustrations -- and when, a few months back, I started to seriously think about the process of uprooting myself, I thought that it would be a painful and somewhat sad undertaking. It turned out to be more joyous than I had imagined --since I know I am making a number of long-term commitments to Guatemala and to friends and projects here, and since many of the friendships and comradeships I have established also feel as though they will be around for the long haul. I thought I would be crying, but I wasn't.. except for a few moments when I was listening to the principal general of the alcaldia indigena in Chichi...

I will write this out in stages. as it has already been more than a week and I have kind of left the blog alone as I have been adapting back to life in the U.S.

The first of the goodbyes was a lunch with my friend Emilie, an Anglican priest from Canada who lives in Santa Cruz del Quiché and whom I very fortunately befriended but unfortunately we met very late in my stay in Guatemala. A mutual friend had put us in touch via email some months back and we'd exchanged emails but had never gotten around to meeting -- things just kept on getting in the way and I, for one, just lost track of the contact. You know you keep some things in the back of your mind -- "Oh, I should get back to that person" -- and then they kind of slip beyond the point of easy retrieval. That's what happened with Emilie; some very engaging and engaged emails, and then other things pushed themselves into the foreground and I kind of forgot about her until I was at a Thanksgiving dinner in Xela at the home of my friend Javier. Javier's wife, who is also a minister, upon learning that I lived in El Quiché, asked me if I knew Emilie. I said that we had exchanged emails but never met, but the very next day I found Emilie's phone number and called her; she told me that she had been planning to call me as she was coming to Chinique the following day, and so I invited her to lunch. She has had a long-term relationship with Guatemala, and it was helpful for me to have someone who could be a sounding board for some of my experiences and impressions.

We saw each other whenever possible during the next month - -which wasn't very often as we were both traveling a bit. However, we managed to celebrate my birthday and Hanuka, and just before she left for a two-week stay in Xela, we squeezed in a lunch. I had had to come to Santa Cruz to get a new tire for my car, and Emilie, who is a terrific cook, whipped up a chicken pot pie for me.

My little cabal in Xela wanted to have a despedida for me and so the Friday before my departure I drove there. We had the gathering at Humberto's house so that his wife Ana and daughter Rocio could participate, although they both retired early and left me alone with a roomful of guys. Women and men often do not socialize together, or rather, even in married couples, men often gather with their male friends and although in long-term friendships the wives are undoubtedly acquainted and there are probably some gathering that include couples and children, still the men often socialize among themselves. That has certainly been my experience with my circle of male friends in Xela. I have finally met a few of their wives, but they have well-established patterns of homosociality.

Then my friends from Ixmukané wanted to have a churrasco (barbecue) -- the impetus mostly came from Jeanet and her mother Matilde -- so we planned that for Sunday afternoon. I need to clarify that this was not the formal "despedida" from the organization; that took place in the office on Monday afternoon. This was a gathering among friends, outdoors.  My friends Catarino and Sandra, who were going to store my things, house me night before my departure, and then accompany me to the airport, wanted to have a special dinner with me the night before we left. And then somehow two of my young friends from Chichicastenango squeezed themselves into a space that did not really exist -- on Monday evening, they announced that they were coming to Chinique for the fiesta and to say goodbye to me.  I get tired just writing this all down.

So, poco a poco, I will retrace some of the missing narratives.

New Bedford update

Here's what I have submitted for the April (??) issue of Anthropology News. It probably won't look the same when it comes out in print.

March 6, 2012 marks the fifth anniversary of the 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Michael Bianco garment factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a highly militarized operation involving over 500 federal, state and local law enforcement agents. As a result, 361 undocumented workers, primarily Maya K’iche’ women from Guatemala, were shipped to detention facilities, mostly out of state, where some languished for months. The raid sent shock waves through the Central American migrant community as family members scrambled to learn where their loved ones had been sent. Fearing they might be next, some migrants stayed home from work, kept their children home and avoided going out in public. Eventually, over 100 workers were deported.

The raid reverberated well beyond the local community, as it marked a new phase in the U.S. government’s increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants – large-scale workplace raids, long-term detention and mass-scale deportation. Deportations have skyrocketed during the Obama presidency, reaching a record high of over 400,000 in 2011. Some observers have suggested that since deporting all of the 12 to 15 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. is not feasible, one unstated goal of this stepped-up enforcement is to suppress wages and immigrant worker activism.

Long before the 2007 raid, labor and immigrant advocates recognized that immigrant workers in New Bedford suffered hazardous working conditions, wage theft, racial and sexual discrimination and outright harassment from employers and supervisors.  Accidents are common; at one recycling company alone, ten workers lost fingers. Ironically, the raid helped to catalyze a new wave of open and often quite militant activism by the immigrant community, focused primarily around workplace rights. 

In 2008, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other immigrants founded the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (Workers Community Center), and they have waged successful campaigns at local and regional workplaces. Sometimes CCT has gone to bat on behalf of an individual employee, like D.S., a 16-year old Guatemalan who received no pay for the 8 weeks he worked at Tents-4-Rent, a tent-rental company. In other cases, groups of workers have approached the organization. While many abuses are common to all immigrant workers, women workers are additionally vulnerable to sexual harassment, and the Guatemalan Maya (the largest Central American group in the area) are frequently subjected to racist commentary from their supervisors (often non-indigenous Guatemalans who have transposed Guatemala’s racial ideologies into a new setting).  CCT’s tactics are fairly straightforward: with help from English-speaking collaborators like me, they write letters to the companies detailing the violations (informed by a working knowledge of relevant state and national statutes) and requesting remediation. They also seek face-to-face meetings with managers or owners. If this does not produce results, then they move into direct action, usually picketing in front of the owners’ home.

Since the government is pushing the E-verify program, which obliges employers to verify the migration status of their employees, many local companies use temporary employment agencies to create a legal smokescreen. Temporary agencies have been notoriously lax about enforcing minimum wage and other labor laws, and they have also blacklisted workers who report abuses.  CCT has joined other immigrant workers’ centers and unions in Massachusetts to push for passage of HB 1393, the Reform Employment Agency Law (REAL), and their efforts have started to bear fruit. On January 18, 2012 (the day I flew back from a year’s stay in Guatemala) CCT signed an agreement with one of the largest temporary agencies in Southeastern Massachusetts, guaranteeing that immigrant employees would receive minimum wage, overtime, vacation, and sick leave, and that health and safety requirements would be met.

At the same time, immigrants are making claims on their home country governments.  The Guatemalan Consul in Providence now regularly invites Maya from New Bedford to its activities, and while writing this column, I helped craft an invitation to Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry to send a representative to the events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the ICE raid.

However, workplace abuses continue, and during the last year CCT’s two main organizers were assaulted, one at gunpoint. We do not know if these attacks were a result of general anti-immigrant sentiment, or more directly connected with their advocacy.  But unlike many immigrant crime victims, both went to the police, and are pushing the local authorities to investigate. And, as transnational and media-savvy activists, they made sure that newspapers in both New Bedford and Guatemala reported the assaults.

Meanwhile, back in New Bedford...

While I was away, my compadres in the immigrants' rights movement here had not been idle. Some years back I helped found a labor rights organization, the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, and arranged for one of my students to work there several hours a week while I was away, so that there would be someone on hand who could take over some of the work I performed for the organization -- primarily, the writing of letters to companies that abused their workers. I helped arrange for Danielle to get some academic credit (through internships and experiential learning), but she had to stop working at CCT in January and during my last two weeks in Guatemala, Adrian kept on reminding me that they needed me back. That helped minimize the anguish of leaving Guatemala (and actually, as I have indicated in earlier blogs, since Guatemala has become part of my daily life, since I plan to go back in March, and since the internet allows me to stay in relatively constant contact with friends and colleagues there, the process of leaving was not as wrenching and anguish-producing as I had feared), since I knew that I would be able to throw myself back into the work almost immediately.

The very day of my departure from Guatemala, CCT signed an historic agreement with one of the big temporary employment agencies in the area -- one of the chief sources of employment for local immigrant workers as the companies now prefer to sidestep the issue of having to verify immigration status by letting the temporary agencies intervene and become the responsible party.  I was in transit but Adrian had told me this was happening before I left.

However, as I settled back into my routine here (commuting from Brooklyn to Massachusetts, getting back into the groove of teaching), he shared some more disturbing news: he had been assaulted at gunpoint, in broad daylight, outside the offices of CCT. Two men attacked him, one wielding a gun. They hit him, one said something like, "We're going to kill you" but he fought them off and they fled. He thought the attack was most likely politically motivated rather than an attempted robbery -- he noted that they had not taken his wallet or his phone, which they could have done fairly easily. But rather, he thought, it was designed to scare him, and others. Whether it was because of his outspoken advocacy for immigrant workers, or some trace of his activist past in Guatemala, he does not know. He did, however, after consulting with people from some of the community and religious organizations that have supported the work of CCT, decide to go to the police station and apply for a gun permit.

I just penned a short update on these events for the monthly newsletter of the American Anthropological Association. I will post the unpublished version here (I assume it will go through some editing before it sees the light of day).

Here and there

Although I am physically back in the United States, part of my heart and mind remain in Guatemala. This is not an exaggeration or simply a poetic fantasy. During my year in Guatemala I had friendships and collegial relationships with people across the country, and the Internet was a crucial medium through which we stayed in touch with each other. This was particularly true of my friends in the community radio movement. Through the workshops and the national Encounter of Community Radios in August, I developed fairly close friendships with activists (they may not all call themselves that, but I think they are, as they are part of an effort to undermine media monopolies and defend the right to free expression) from radio stations throughout the country. We felt a close bond, and we used the internet to stay in touch.

This was largely through Facebook -- as much as some of my friends in the U.S. look upon it with disdain, it has become an important means of communication. Guatemalans in general -- those who have access to the internet, which is not that restricted any longer if one has a few extra quetzales in one's pocket as every town has at least one internet café -- have taken to Facebook with a vengeance. Please understand I am using café in a generic sense here; outside of the major cities none of these places offers food; they are simply small storefronts with some tables and computers. In Guatemala we simply call one of these places  "el internet". In the afternoons they are full of young people, some ostensibly doing research for school and completing their homework, but also chatting on line. A USB modem costs a little over $20, and one can buy either a monthly service plan (the least expensive one costs about the same as the modem) or pay by the week, day, or even hour, so while it is not cheap, it is not out of reach. During the early weeks of my stay, when I first bought my own USB modem and had to seek help from an acquaintance who worked at an internet in Zacualpa, since I was having trouble initializing it, I looked around when I was at the internet and saw that all of the four or five young people who were in the room at the time were on Facebook.

 My friend Noe was in San Miguel Ixtahuacan and I only actually saw him one time after we initially met in August, when I visited in December, but during the intervening months we communicated frequently, mostly via Facebook. Lovely Nicolasa, a dynamic young mother who is one of two female locutoras (radio announcers) at Xobil Yol in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, and I chatted regularly. The same with Valentín, one of the founders of Estereo Ixchel in Sumpango. In all of these cases, the radio stations have internet (in the case of La Voz del Pueblo in SMI, it is the community organization, ADISMI, that founded the radio station that has computers and internet) and so when the locutores are at the station, they are usually online (since it is often the same computer that is used for broadcasting -- I think all the stations that I have visited personally used a computer-based program for broadcasting) and so we were able to chat nearly daily. And my physical departure from Guatemala has not changed that habit or custom. We greet each other, give quick updates, and exchange ideas much as we always did.

As I am writing this blog, in fact, I am chatting with Valentín. He does the morning show, from 6 to 8 (Guatemala is an hour behind us, so it is 8:45 here and 7:45 there), and so we often greet each other in the morning. He had posted an article about the end of the Maya agricultural year, from the daily newspaper, and so I wanted to thank him for that. He is an ajq'ij (Maya priest) and a farmer -- he does two hours of broadcasting in the morning and then goes off to spend the day in his fields, and then returns several evenings a week to do another few hours of broadcasting after finishing his farming tasks. In fact, Valentín hadn't remembered that I was no longer in Guatemala (I had told him but I don't think it fully sunk in, or that bit of information slipped beneath the surface of the daily flow of more urgent matters) and a few days ago asked me whether I was in Chichicastenango or Antigua. Neither, I said. I'm in Brooklyn.